In Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, Weston tells the story of an eagle trying to steal the testes of farm-castrated lambs. A tom cat comes sniffing around and the eagle picks it up. Mid air, the cat claws at the eagle’s chest. The bird tries to drop it, but the cat won’t let go knowing it will fall and die. Instead, it decides to bring the eagle down, meaning certain death for both. From the first of what many consider the playwright’s Family Trilogy – including Buried Child and True West, the anecdote reflects Shepard’s frequent depiction of genetic bloodsport.
Austin (Paul Dano) is a quiet, timid, bespectacled screenwriter on the verge of his first big deal. Away from his family “up north,” he’s staying at mom’s Southern California house (she’s on vacation) to meet with a local producer.
After five years of estrangement, Austin’s surprised to be intruded upon by drunk, disheveled, brother Lee (Ethan Hawke), just returned from living in the desert. The latter’s confrontational attitude and appearance make you want to both back up and scratch. (Holes in the soles of his shoes are a nice touch.)
Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano
Lee is an admitted petty thief and hustler who’s already checked the premises and several neighboring houses for access to saleable items. Austin meets his sibling with politely repressed trepidation. It’s not long before he’s reluctantly trading his car keys for privacy to meet with money man Saul Kimmer. (Gary Wilmes making nothing of the role.)
Predictably, Lee returns (with a stolen television) before the producer has exited, commandeers the conversation, declares he has an idea for a western (movie), and obnoxiously coerces Saul into playing golf first thing the next morning to hear a pitch.
Austin submissively agrees to help Lee with the outline for a plot he nonetheless feels is contrived on the off chance it will help his reprobate brother to a new life. It turns out that the siblings somewhat envied each other – Austin for Lee’s bravado and adventures, Lee for what he perceives as Austin’s free ride – an upscale, secure lifestyle.
Wonder of wonders, not only is Lee good at golf, but his concept is met with enthusiasm. Provoked by an unspecified bet, the western gets a red light. Worse, Austin’s expected to write both films if he wants his made. He adamantly refuses…until…
Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke
Act II careens with incendiary energy. Identities all but switch. Purloined toasters are inspired. Blackmail warps decisions. Resentment explodes into ferocious violence. The confluence of hyper-realism and complete absurdity is sheer Shepherd. Mom shows up and, with shocking equanimity, withdraws to a hotel room leaving the boys to sort things out. (Do we need her?) We’re left with the eagle and the cat.
Ethan Hawke (Lee) is undoubtedly having the time of his life. After a series of brooding/evil/internalized roles, opportunity to be both emotionally and physically ungovernable must be cathartic. There’s a fine line between scenery chewing and precision abandonment. Hawke walks it. The actor gleefully menaces, lording over his stage brother (and seducing Saul) with insufferable meanness and swagger. This is as loose, wince-inducing, and unforgiving a performance as you’re likely to see for some time.
As Austin, Paul Dano has unfortunately not quite found his character. He’s so passive in Act I, we find him less a wuss than not credible. There doesn’t seem to be anything going on inside the obtuse persona to justify behavior. Partly redeeming himself later, Dano is an engaging, somewhat looney drunk and even better when Austin finally cracks. The first part alas diminishes the second.
The capable Marylouise Burke is made only slightly nonplussed instead of embodying the kind of cracked, disoriented humor she does so well. A loss.
Director James MacDonald is masterful with small and large stage business alike. Endless delicious, observable moments define character. Sweeping use of the stage is marvelous. Except for caveats where Austin and mom are concerned, skill is omnipresent.
Mimi Lien creates the perfect, sunny, California kitchen with cherry wallpaper and window view. The single, radical set change is wonderfully effected. A proscenium neon frame initializing blackout between scenes, however, is a device that, in addition to ominous/eruptive sounds, seems to say I don’t trust the play’s perspective to come trough without additional signaling. Original Music and Sound Design by Brad Poor is otherwise evocative.
Thomas Schall has outdone himself with spectacular Fight Choreography. Kaye Voyce’s Costumes are just right. Lighting by Jane Cox is simply wonderful. Not only do we know the time of day but seeing a candle flame before figures, watching confrontation in shadow, and other expressive, defining moments add immeasurably.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
True West by Sam Shepard
Directed by James Macdonald
Through March 17, 2019
American Airlines Theatre